Sri Ramakrishna used to say, “Man is Narayana Himself. If God can manifest Himself through an image, then why not through man also?” He declared very categorically that God-realisation is the aim of human life.
But the means to this are legion. “Does God exist only when the eyes are closed and cease to exist when the eyes are opened?” he observed. He also pointed out that “an empty stomach is no good for religion,” and himself took steps to mitigate such wants. Although he warned against philanthropy being demeaned by desire for name and fame, he commended selfless acts of charity as being ‘very noble’. He told Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the famous educationist and humanitarian: “Though work for the good of others belongs to rajas, yet this rajas has sattva for its basis and is not harmful. Suka and other sages cherished compassion in their minds to give people religious instruction, to teach them about God. You are distributing food and learning. That is good too. If these activities are done in a selfless spirit they lead to God.”
On another occasion, while explaining the essential doctrine of Vaishnava religion, Sri Ramakrishna said, “Compassion for all beings! … No, no, it is not compassion to the jiva, but service to the jiva as Shiva.”
It was this idea that Swami Vivekananda developed into his philosophy of social service In a letter to his disciple, Sharat Chandra Chakraborty, on 3 July 1897, Swamiji wrote:
Here is a peculiarity: when you serve a Jiva with the idea that he is Jiva, it is Daya (compassion) and not Prema (love); but when you serve him with the idea that he is the Self, that is Prema. That the Atman is the one object of love is known from Shruti, Smriti, and direct perception. … Our principle, therefore, should be love, and not compassion. … For us, it is not to pity but to serve. Ours is not the feeling of compassion but of love, and the feeling of Self in all.
He coined the term daridra-narayana, God in the form of the poor, and asked us to serve Him: “Where should you go to seek God—are not all the poor, the miserable, the weak, Gods? Why not worship them first?” This concept of ‘service as worship’ defines the outlook of the Ramakrishna Order in all its social-service undertakings.
Swami Vivekananda drew attention to four forms of service: “The gift of spirituality and spiritual knowledge is the highest, … the next gift is secular knowledge, … the next is the saving of life; and the fourth is the gift of food.” He had a comprehensive ‘developmental perspective’ even for famine relief.
When Swami Akhandanandaji Maharaj was involved in the Mission’s first famine relief, Swamiji wrote, “Akhandananda is working wonderfully at Mahula, but the system is not good. It seems they are frittering away their energies in one little village and that only doling out rice. I do not hear that any preaching has been done along with this helping. All the wealth of the world cannot help one little Indian village if the people are not taught to help themselves. Our work should be mainly educational, both moral and intellectual.” This holistic-empowerment perspective remains the binding vision of the Order to this day.
The empowerment that Swamiji conceived of was based on practical or applied Vedanta. The Upanishads, Swamiji pointed out, are a mine of strength, for they reveal the Atman, the source of all power. He emphasised that “these conceptions of the Vedanta must come out, must remain not only in the forest, not only in the cave, but they must come out to work at the bar and the bench, in the pulpit and in the cottage of the poor man. … [For] if the fisherman thinks that he is the Spirit, he will be a better fisherman; if the student thinks he is the Spirit, he will be a better student …, and so on.”
For the members of the Ramakrishna Order, service is “Vedanta in practice.” We need to serve others because their suffering is, in fact, our own. Making them happy is the only way we can make ourselves happy.
This is the spirit behind Ramakrishna Mission’s relief activities. This definitive philosophy, which combines immense idealism with immense practicality, is encapsulated in the motto of the Ramakrishna Order, which is ‘Atmano mokshartham jagat hitaya cha’ or ‘For personal spiritual emancipation and collective well-being.’ The immense idealism of the Vedanta philosophy which declares the divinity of man and the oneness of existence was combined with the immense practicality of identifying with this oneness of existence (or God) through service. In other words, monks and volunteers manifest their latent spirituality that culminates in unconditional individual freedom (Atmano-mokshartham) by serving God (or divinity) in man. Given that natural and man-made disasters disrupt the welfare in a community, relief is one of the most immediate and direct means of restoring the welfare (or Jagat hita) of an affected area.